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How Your Paint Department Affects Self-Driving Technology

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LiDAR, a key piece of self-driving car technology that has been heavily debated by various companies, uses lasers to help cars map and navigate a vehicle’s surroundings. Tesla has looked toward cameras and radar to do the majority of the work of its Autopilot driver assistance program, while other companies, like General Motors, promote the use of the LiDAR technology. Last year, Research and Markets released a report that anticipates the global automotive LiDAR market was to hit $65 million in the year 2016, before it is expected to hit $13 billion in 2027.

Now here’s where your collision repair shop comes into the equation: The technology requires a certain amount of light reflected back to its sensors in order to detect surrounding landscape and objects, says Barry Snyder, senior vice president and chief technology officer for Axalta Coating Systems.

If that light is compromised? It can negatively affect the autonomous vehicle’s collision avoidance features and put lives in danger.

Unless you’re on top of industry trends and your paint department’s processes, that is. Snyder says that while these trends won’t immediately impact your shop, your paint processes will need to change soon, to the point where specific spots on a vehicle will need to match the reflectivity of the vehicle in order for LiDAR to function properly.

FenderBender spoke with Snyder and other industry experts to review how LiDAR technology and paint interact on autonomous vehicles.


How Paint Affects LiDAR

LiDAR uses ultraviolet, visible or near infrared light to image objects. LiDAR originated in the 1960s, shortly after the invention of the laser and combined laser-focused imaging with the ability to calculate distances by measuring the time for a signal to return using appropriate sensors and data acquisition electronics.

LiDAR, also known as light detection and ranging, is typically seen as a device spinning on the top of a vehicle, according to the American Coatings Association. LiDAR sensors use emitted light pulses to remotely detect the location of objects. The light emitted by the sensors is reflected by the clearcoat, or reflected or absorbed by the pigments in the basecoat.

“LiDAR technology is more or less the eyes of the auto vehicle system,” Snyder says.


Choosing the Right Paint

Snyder says there needs to be some type of reflectivity in the paint in order for the light beams to bounce out and be reflected back to the LiDAR system. For dark paint, like black or dark blue, much of the light is absorbed, which means that not enough comes back for the sensor to detect and process the landscape around it.

While this has always been the case, Snyder says a disconnect occurs between paint manufacturers and LiDAR technology companies because the latter does not stipulate the most effective paint to ensure enough light is reflected back for every color.

In addition to challenges with darker paint, colors that are too bright and highly metallic might be too reflective.

“Then, you’re going to be getting 100 percent coming back directly to the sensor and could be blinding to it,” Snyder says.

When looking into effect colors, the change in the way light is reflected off surfaces as you move around the vehicle can be affected, which, in turn, affects the signal, he says.

“Ultimately, it is going to be really important to how these systems detect and consistently reflect to a vehicle on the road, whether it is 5–10 yards away from your bumper or 100 yards away from your bumper,” Snyder says.

Snyder says the color white naturally sends close to 100 percent of light back to the vehicle and makes it easier for the sensor to see and detect from all angles, directions and distances on the road.

In order to stay on top of any autonomous trends that could affect your paint department, Snyder says to keep your ear to the ground by regularly asking your paint supplier for updates.


Looking Ahead for Paint Departments

Chris Gardner, vice president of Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA), says that with the growing number of vehicles on the road, there are still concerns regarding the ability of LiDAR systems to generate accurate readings from every vehicle on the road.

Automated vehicles using LiDAR will also need to perform well with all vehicles on the road today—even those with poor reflectivity or custom paint jobs, says Brian Daugherty, chief technology officer for Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA)—which is why body shops likely won’t see an impact on paint procedures right away.

“There is a lot of promise but we are far from rolling out solutions that will perform perfectly with every vehicle situation,” Gardner says.

LiDAR sensors will also be used in conjunction with other sensors to provide multi-spectral capability in the event that the LiDAR sensor has an issue with a particular color, Daugherty says, thus eliminating the need for a “sweet spot” of light reflectivity.

“Although ensuring that vehicle paints and their associated paint chemistry reflect LiDAR infrared wavelengths well should be a recommended design standard,” he says.

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